The present work is an early exploration of the role of chance in creativity, the serendipities and synergies that emerge in a collective project, and questions of authorship in an interdisciplinary practice-led research project. Far south by David Enrique Spellman is a multi-platform narrative with a published novel at its heart but incorporating film, graphic novel, photographic images, sound files and supplementary text on a series of websites. Desmond Barry is the writer of the core novel and directed some 24 people who participated in the multi-platform production. Participants’ interaction, however, took the fictional narrative in different directions in the creative process. Found objects, postcards and photographs from Tristan Navaja flea market in Montevideo, Uruguay, influenced the narrative in ‘surprising conjunctions within carefully delimited frameworks and processes’ as Joanne Retallack described composer John Cage’s lifelong project (Retallack 1996). In an academic environment where chance and risk are often considered suspect, the present work, a self-reflective narrative examination of practice-led research and creative process, is an initial interrogation and illumination of the potentialities of using cooperation and chance in prose fiction and interdisciplinary multi-platform stories.
1. The Making of the Multi-platform Novel
The multi-platform novel Far south by David Enrique Spellman (2011) with its text, graphic novel, film and web-based content relied to a great extent on chance and cooperative creativity for its composition. It was helped to realisation via a Creative Wales Award 2006, which enabled the author of the text and films to travel in Argentina, Uruguay, the Falkland Islands, France and Italy to research the written materials for this global novel, and to shoot the films for the websites. In creating a narrative of the inception, construction, and final publication of Far south by Serpent’s Tail in September 2011, the present work will make an initial examination of: the role of chance in creativity, which can be further developed; the synergies of cooperation; and questions of authorship in an interdisciplinary practice-led research project.
In the documentary film Derrida directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman (2002) there is an extract from a lecture given by Jacques Derrida at a NYU Biography Conference:
If classical philosophers usually avoid autobiography, it is because they think it’s indecent. That is, a philosopher should not speak of himself as an empirical being. And this impoliteness, or this politeness is philosophy itself, in principle. So if we want to break with this philosophical axiom, this classical philosophical axiom, according to which a philosopher should not present himself or give in to autobiography, then we have to be indecent to some extent. (Dick & Kofman 2005)
In order to write self-reflective criticism that depends very much on autobiography, the present work needs ‘to be indecent to some extent’ as we examine the events, problems and motivations that led to the composition of Far south.
David Enrique Spellman is a heteronym whose birth was foreshadowed by a number of literary precedents: Fernando Pessoa, Ern Malley, Bob McCorkle, Roland Barthes, and the Buddhist philosophical theory of the non-existence of a permanent self. While the present author took responsibility for writing the novel that lies at the heart of the project, and shooting and editing the films for a great deal of the digital materials, Diego Vidart, now a lecturer in Audiovisual Engineering the Catholic University of Montevideo, and Juan Manuel Díaz designed and built the website; and 23 others took part in the project.
Before the invention of David Enrique Spellman and Far South, the present author had written three previous novels, each one carefully plotted within tight Aristotelian frameworks:
- The chivalry of crime (Barry 2000), which is the story of a Welsh fifteen-year-old who meets Robert Ford, the assassin of Jesse James;
- A bloody good Friday (Barry 2002), which retells the myth of Cuchullain, but set in the Welsh Valleys in 1977;
- Cressida’s bed (Barry 2004), which re-frames Shakespeare’s Troilus and cressida in India and Bhutan during the 1930s and explores the tensions that arise philosophically and politically with the involvement of westerners with the ‘East’.
I wanted to break away from any preconceived plot. Adopting the heteronym Spellman created a certain psychological freedom to experiment with form, and to allow chance to guide the narrative of the Far south text and digital resources. Becoming Spellman was an escape from a previous authorial persona that was being experienced as somewhat psychologically and creatively oppressive. But the use of a heteronym as the author of the book is also meant as an acknowledgement of the input of so many others. The Far South Collective is the given name of a loosely affiliated group of artists, writers, musicians, dancers, designers and actors who freely agreed to contribute to the project and appear in the films on the website. Film content for the site was produced with collaboration from: Cathy Broud, Miriam Brusa, Adriano Cortese, Peter Finch, Gerardo Gandini, Eric Hadley, Jack Hadley, Tessa Hadley, Geraldine Lublin, Paul Lum, Carine Noury, Joan Ponsich, Soledad Suarez, Rikki Sued, Zoe Sued, Nathan Sussex, Ana Vasquez, Stoffelina Verdonk, and Helen Williams, who acted in the films; music was provided by Kevin de las Casas, Suke Driver, Graham Phillips, and John Renshaw. All the films in a small format can be found at www.far-south.org. Vimeo links to specific films for full screen viewing can be found on Vimeo and YouTube: The innocence https://vimeo.com/37553829; The conjuration http://vimeo.com/49483601; Prayers and rumours (part 1: http://vimeo.com/49471540 and Part 2 http://vimeo.com/49471541); and Book people http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yL3S9Bv53n0.
David Enrique Spellman is the voice of the Far South Collective. He is an imaginary author who has escaped from the novel. In the ‘Editor’s Epilogue’ of Far south, Spellman is named as the translator and the editor of a diary of a fictional private eye Juan Manuel Pérez, and this diary forms the main narrative of the novel: the story of the search for Gerardo Fischer, a Uruguayan theatre director who has gone missing in the Sierras of Córdoba, Argentina.
During the creation of the novel and tangential materials, the narrative of Far south radically changed to accommodate the influence of found objects and the improvised responses of those who participated in making the digital and performative materials: the actors who participated in the films and the web designers wanted to make a creative rather than a simply technical input. Barry’s new authorial persona Spellman became the shaper of the narrative and creative director.
The original authorial impulse for writing a global novel was to make sense of the experience of a traveller who doesn’t feel identified with, or have roots in, any one place: having grown up in Wales but with Irish ancestry; having lived in Italy for four years and in the United States for 16 years; having worked for a non-governmental organisation in Tibet over four summers and met my present partner Helen Williams, who is Australian, in Beijing in 1999; having lived in Sydney and travelled around Australia; a traveller who feels little sense of national identity; and who has a strong sense of resentment that anyone has to be documented to cross a border. As traveller/author I wanted my fourth novel to reflect this sense of rootlessness, but I had no other than a vague idea of where to begin the narrative.
When I began this project I had no idea that it would turn out to be so collaborative, and I was surprised at how willing people were to contribute to it.
1.3 The Role of Chance
Having written three carefully plotted novels, I wanted to let chance guide the making of my next novel. In 2004, a Uruguayan documentary photographer Diego Vidart moved in next door to the apartment that Helen Williams and I rented on Cathedral Road in Cardiff. The first time I talked to Diego Vidart was when I met him, by chance, on a train from Cardiff going up the valleys: myself to Treforest, Diego to Treorchy. Diego was embarking on a project connecting Treorchy in the Rhondda with Trevelin in Patagonia: http://www.polonio.com.uy/conexiongalesa/index.html (Vidart 2005). I had met many Welsh people with an interest in the Welsh colony in Patagonia, but no South Americans to that point. Although I have little research interest in the Patagonia colony myself, I was curious about my neighbour’s project and told him, on that train journey, that I planned on going to Chile and Argentina in December 2004—particularly to the Sierras of Córdoba—for reasons of my own. I asked Diego to recommend some South American literature to read before I went. He suggested Cortázar’s Hopscotch (1967), Arlt’s The seven madmen (1998), and Donoso’s Obscene bird of night (1979), among others. In a moment of immediate serendipity, I found Cortázar’s Hopscotch that same evening on the shelves of Troutmark, a second-hand bookshop in a Cardiff arcade. The other books were found far more prosaically online.
That December 2004, my partner Helen and I arrived a small town in the Sierras of Córdoba near Villa Carlos Paz in Argentina to visit mutual friends. Glen Eddy (1941-2006) was an American who lived on a piece of land in the hills owned by a Buddhist community. I had first met him in California in 1985. He had been trained as a traditional thangka painter in India, and made his living painting on commission. He had lived in Argentina since 2000.
I had heard that a year or so before my visit, there had been a brutal robbery on the community’s land followed by another robbery close by. One of a gay couple had, in self defence, shot two of the three robbers, wounding one and killing the other. Glen gave me a very thorough account of what had happened, speculating that he thought they had been targeted for their sexuality. I thought that these incidents would make a good story but not enough for a whole book, and not enough to explore what I wanted to do in a global novel.
Glen and I continued to talk about the political situation in Argentina where Néstor Kirchner had recently come to power. In the news at that time we heard reports of the arrest of ex-police officers who were kidnapping victims for ransom. The case had echoes of when once, sanctioned by the dictatorship, the police and military had been involved in the Dirty War, kidnapping, torturing and killing thousands of victims. I stayed in the Sierras for a few weeks to get a feel for Argentina’s countryside, the wildlife, and the environment where the robberies took place. Then Helen and I journeyed on to Buenos Aires to explore Porteño life.
On the last evening in Buenos Aires, Helen and I met with two friends, Ana and Graciela—known as La Rata, the Rat—two tango dancers. Ana took us to a bar in the Barrancas de Belgrano next to a circular church called La Inmacolata. We talked about Borges and Cortázar, and then Ana asked me if I knew anything about Ernesto Sábato. I didn’t. Helen said that when she had been an English teacher in Buenos Aires in 1999, she had taught Sábato’s grandson.
Ana said that the bar in which we sat had once been a rundown building that had inspired Sábato to claim—in the Informe Sobre Ciegos (Report on the Blind) section of his novel Sobre heroes y tumbas (On heroes and tombs)—that the building concealed an entrance to a subterranean labyrinth beneath the streets of Buenos Aires. Sábato, she said, had remained in Argentina in political opposition during the time of the dictatorships, despite the danger to his life. He was so respected that when the dictatorships fell, he chaired the tribunal investigating the murders and torture carried out by the military. He edited the report on the proceedings called Nunca mas (Never again) (Sábato 1986) that documented the deaths of 8,961 victims, which John Dinges, in his book The Condor years, calls ‘the bedrock minimum of documented victims of the regime’s network of secret prisons and extermination centers’ (Dinges 2004: 232).
I wanted to read Sábato’s work. The following day we flew to Santiago. We stayed overnight. Online, I ordered On heroes and tombs, Sábato’s novel in translation. The next day, at Santiago airport, with our last remaining pesos, Helen searched for a CD by Astor Piazzolla, the pioneer composer of Tango Nuevo. She owned music composed by Piazzolla but performed by the Finnish musician Mika Väyrynen (Väyrynen 2000). She wanted a CD on which Piazzolla played his own music. She chose a CD at random from the racks. By the time we’d arrived at Cathedral Road, so had Sábato’s On heroes and tombs. I began reading it immediately. That evening, we played the Piazzolla CD. Over the bandoneón of Astor Piazzolla, a bass voice read an incantation. When we checked the credits of each track we discovered that this was the recorded voice of Ernesto Sábato reading the opening incantation of the Informe Sobre Ciegos (Report on the Blind) section of his novel Sobre heroes y tumbas (On heroes and tombs) (Sábato 2004: 247).
I knew at this point that Far south was to begin in Argentina, in the Sierras of Córdoba, with the story that Glen Eddy had told me. And it was to be about someone who disappears—whether kidnapped by right-wing ex-military or for some other reason, which as yet wasn’t clear; and that I wanted it to reflect in some way on Sábato’s literary work. I was still not clear how the novel might be global in scope.
Not long after our return from Argentina, in January 2005, a Welsh actor, Clare Isaacs, who had just been in Melbourne, proposed working on a joint Cardiff-Melbourne production with an Australian company called Ranters Theatre, one of whose members I’d already met. Helen thought that three was a good number and suggested that we include a Buenos Aires component. James Tyson, the director of Stiwdio Chapter, contacted Rafael Spregelburd of the Buenos Aires theatre company El Patrón Vasquez who agreed to participate; thus Three cities was born: three plays with the themes of emigration, immigration and exile. Three cities was developed in parallel to the Far south project, and was to provide Australian participants for the films in Far south’s multi-platform narrative.
In 2005, the Arts Council of Wales inaugurated its Creative Wales Awards. A requirement for the award was to propose a project that would stretch the parameters of the artist’s chosen form. How was this possible with a novel? The obvious answer was to look for ways in which the novel might infiltrate new digital technologies or how new digital technologies might infiltrate the novel. I proposed the creation of a global novel, Far south, with digital material in sound and image tangential to the prose. The judges deemed the project worthy of an award at the end of 2005, and this was presented early in 2006.
I began planning a new three-month research journey to Uruguay and Argentina, to allow for ‘surprising conjunctions within carefully delimited frameworks and processes’ as Joanne Retallack described composer John Cage’s lifelong project in the introduction to her book Musicage (Retallack 1996: xxvii). These ‘surprising conjunctions’ will be outlined within the narrative of the current text. Without a preconceived plot, Far south relied on chance meetings, dream, and found objects as prompts to the development of its storylines.
1.4 The Emergence of the Narrative and Digital Materials
Far south was my creative focus for the next four years. In September 2006, before I left for South America, Diego Vidart proposed collaboration on a joint text/image exhibition on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Falkland War. I was reluctant to go to the Falklands/Malvinas but the idea must have had a strong impact on my unconscious. One night I dreamt that the Miners’ Institute in Treorchy had been converted into an arts centre. On the roof was a sculpture of a valley in the Falklands made in plaster, with miniature military figurines. At the head of the valley was an Argentine strongpoint. British forces advanced along ridges above the valley that was not grass and soil but gaping torn flesh. When I woke up I thought of the artist Joseph Beuys, ‘sham or shaman’, who imagined ‘himself as the aesthetic healer of Germany’ (Rosenthal 2005: 13). Why not—through this creative collaboration—try to help heal the wound caused by the terrible violence of the war between the people of Britain and Argentina? Diego and I planned the journey to the Falklands/Malvinas after my return from Argentina. The Falkland diaries (Barry & Vidart 2007) linked with Far south in both form and, to some extent, in content (as the fictional protagonist of Far south, Gerardo Fischer, appears in the diary narrative).
I left for South America in the middle of October 2006 and stayed for three months. I carried a Panasonic camcorder and shot footage wherever I went: the Tigre Delta, Montevideo, Buenos Aires, and the Sierras. For one of the films I was fortunate to have the participation of Gerardo Gandini, himself a composer, and also Astor Piazzolla’s pianist; but many people participated and they are named above.
Sadly, my dear friend Glen Eddy had passed away the previous April. I began the first draft of Far south in a small house in the Sierras close to where Glen had lived. I visited Rafael Spregelburd in Buenos Aires where he was at work on his section of Three cities. I returned to Cardiff in January 2007. After performing Three cities with Stiwdio Chapter, Ranters and El Patron Vasquez at Chapter Arts Centre, I interviewed Adriano Cortese and Paul Lum of Ranters Theatre about the disappearance of the Uruguayan theatre director Gerardo Fischer, the central protagonist in the novel Far south.
In February 2007, Diego and I set off for the Falklands from Brize Norton, on a RAF transport aircraft. With the support of Wales Arts International and the Shackleton Fund, we spent three weeks on the islands and exhibited at Wales Millennium Centre from early May to late June 2007. The website is still up at www.falkland-diaries.org.uk. Gerardo Fischer, the theatre director who disappears in Far south, makes a cameo appearance in The Falkland diaries.
Given that film was to be an important part of the Far south project, I viewed documentary film material on the Montoneros (Di Tella 2006), the Ejercito Revolucionario del Pueblo (Corbi & De Jesus 2006), and the arrest of Nazi Erich Priebke in Bariloche (Echeverría 2005) that provided material for some of the political background of the novel.
During a third visit to Argentina and Uruguay in 2008, Diego and I explored the Tristan Navaja market in Montevideo. We bought postcards, photographs, and old objects such as a pencil case, a cigar box, and an enamelled Kodak advertising plaque, among other items. The postcards were used as prompts to construct the narrative, which took the novel to Lebanon and Israel, and to Bariloche in Argentina. They provided material for one of the films (Postcards http://vimeo.com/49483992), and the old photographs provided characters that populate the novel.
In a café discussion with Diego Vidart and Juan Manuel Díaz about the website, the idea for the graphic novel section of the novel came into being. Juan Manuel asked for a description of some of the characters in the novel. I replied that one was a set designer who kept a diary during the 1980s in the form of a graphic novel. Juan Manuel said that we should have a panel of his diary on the website. He was willing to do the drawing but I decided that I wanted to try. I made one page. Then I wanted to see how the previous page might look. I drew a second page. I decided to continue the narrative in graphic form and did the whole 30-page section. This added some months to the completion of the book. With most of the assets for the website in place, Diego and Juan Manuel made an installation in a Montevideo basement. More objects for the website’s background wall were found at Tristan Navaja market. Diego took the photographs, and he and Juan Manuel did the website design incorporating the films, images and text which I provided under a series of pseudonyms.
The aim of the website was to ‘blur the line between truth and misinformation. We hope that the project will make you question everything you see in newspapers, on television, or in the world around you’ (Spellman & Vidart 2011).
1.5 Ethical Considerations around the Narrative Material
The Dirty War is the name given in Argentina to the period in South American history where US supported military dictatorships, known as Operation Condor (Dinges 2004), engaged in mass arrests, torture and murder of people perceived to be left-wing dissidents: students, trade unionists, socialists and communists. The overthrow of democratically elected Salvador Allende by Pinochet took place on 11 September 1973. It is estimated—because nobody has been able to ascertain where the bodies of many of the desaparecidos may be—that in Chile some 3,000 people lost their lives. In Argentina, the number is thought to be closer to 30,000. More victims died in Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil. Because many of the relatives of the desaparicidos are still alive, writing a fictional narrative dealing with this material as a European is delicate, especially as there is a history of a British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, supporting the Pinochet regime, and of the same prime minister going to war with Argentina in the Falklands/Malvinas conflict.
Some of the material for Far south came from interviews with people who survived that time, some with relatives who had been picked up by the military in the early days of the dictatorships, and thankfully released after a period of detention. Diego Vidart, who made the websites for Far south, had an uncle who was arrested and spent some years in a Uruguayan prison. Diego’s family left Uruguay during this period and lived in exile in France and Venezuela. I’m really thankful that people so close to the tragedies of those years agreed to participate in the project and to trust that I would write in a way that would honour and do justice to those who lost their lives and were imprisoned.
The multi-platform project also concerns how media blurs fact and fiction, and the first piece of text that appears on the website draws attention to this. Although some people actually believe the film-based material to be true when they first see it, we have done everything we can to encourage close inspection of the web-based material to see that it is facsimile ‘evidence’ for the disappearance story in the novel, and not a real disappearance.
2. Publishing the ‘Imaginary’ Author
2.1 Life as Heteronym
In the case of Far south the imaginary persona of the author is integral to the work. Serpent’s Tail recognised this and respected the heteronymous nature of David Enrique Spellman as the voice of the Far South Collective.
The novel and website were completed in December 2010. Interaction with the publisher led to the inclusion within the text of urls and QR codes that lead the reader to YouTube videos and other web materials, including a prequel site at www.realandpresent.org, and the sequel site www.far-south.org.
2.2 Literary and Philosophical Antecedents for the Imaginary Author
David Enrique Spellman has a number of literary predecessors with whom he shares a philosophical and literary affinity.
In the early- to mid-twentieth century, Fernando Pessoa, under his own name, wrote the modernist prose novel The book of disquiet (2001). The poems collected in A little larger than the entire universe (2006) were, however, attributed to four heteronyms: four separate poets, with personal histories and writing styles who were separate from Fernando Pessoa. The adoption of these heteronyms did more for Pessoa than disguise him as writer. By adopting each persona, he was free to explore different forms and styles of poetry without being identified by them.
2.2.2 Ern Malley
Only a brief recap is necessary for the imaginary Australian author Ern Malley. In 1943, James McAuley and Harold Stewart hatched an elaborate hoax to discredit the modernist magazine Angry Penguins and its editor Max Harris. Between them, McAuley and Stewart produced a body of posthumous work for the fictitious poet Ern Malley and offered it, via Ern Malley’s fictitious sister, to Harris for publication. Harris was completely taken in. Not only did he publish the first of the poems in Angry Penguins but he also published the entire collection of Malley poems, called The darkening ecliptic. When the fraud was exposed, Harris was mortified, vilified, and even prosecuted for obscenity. But in many quarters the Malley poems were considered to be better than anything the hoaxers themselves had ever written individually, which is evidence perhaps of the virtues of surrealism. Far south and its author David Enrique Spellman is not a hoax, but is a creation of an imaginary author with multi-platform materials that questions the ‘truth’ in media. Far south is an elaborate experiment in what happens when people are invited to participate in spontaneous improvisatory response to the story of Gerardo Fischer’s disappearance, and the result is often so believable it becomes confused with ‘truth’ or ‘reality’ when performed or presented in a public space.
2.2.3 Bob McCorkle
Peter Carey in My life as a fake (2003) fictionalised the Ern Malley story and had an imaginary writer, Bob McCorkle, come to life in the pages of the novel and terrorise his creator. In Far south, David Enrique Spellman, the fictitious editor of the casebook of the private investigator Juan Manuel Perez, escapes from the book and becomes the author of the novel. This authorial device is a way to respect the fact that so many people contributed to the Far south project. It questions the idea of authorship—what is an author? Who is the author? How much is the author an invention of the person who wrote the book and the publisher who publishes it?
Barthes, in ‘The Death of the Author’, makes the case that:
writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body that is writing … As soon as any fact is narrated … the voice loses its origin, the author enters into his own death, writing begins. (Barthes 1977: 142)
And further, ‘a text is made up of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures … but there is one place where this multiplicity is focussed and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author’ (Barthes 1977: 148).
There is a logical anomaly in these statements: the ever-changing consciousness of the reader is in fact absorbing the text at unique moments in time and in particular sets of emotional, physical and intellectual circumstances, which can never be repeated; and the experience of reading exists only in the ever self-modifying memory. Following Barthes’ logic, the reader is just as illusory as the author who composed the text in a similarly unique set of temporal, emotional, physical and intellectual circumstances.
Seán Burke has written a very clear refutation of Barthes’ ‘Death of the Author’ in his book Death and return of the author (1992). Although this is not the place to revisit Burke’s lengthy arguments in depth, if we may acknowledge Barthes’s questioning of authority for a moment; and if we accept the position of materialist neurology that consciousness is a continuum created by ever-changing neurological or psychological activity; then the consciousness that creates or assembles any text, novel or poem, through an act of creative imagination, as author, is as ephemeral as the consciousness of the reader that experiences the unfolding of the text as story or poem within their imagination. Using the logic of Barthes or materialist neurology, the author Desmond Barry who wrote The chivalry of crime is completely other than the author, whatever his name may be, who wrote Far south. Without some embodied consciousness, however, actually to put the text together by writing or typing, there would be no book or—in the case of Far south—no multi-platform narrative. And without the book there would be no reader. What Barthes tends to ignore is that the ‘author’, however ephemeral, is embodied. The body itself, however, is also in a constant state of change though it usually bears the name given to it at birth throughout its life. This is very useful in the world of publishing where there are contracts to sign, money to change hands, units to occupy shelves, and sales figures to report. But the existential question of the concept of the author as being unique to one moment—or to a certain period of time—is still a question.
2.2.5 The Absence of a Permanent Self
This is a concept that would require an in-depth analysis beyond the scope of this paper. But to touch lightly on the subject will illustrate one of the underlying motivations for the use of heteronym as author. Underpinning Buddhist philosophy is the concept of the absence of a permanent self (Samuel 1993: 382-83). The basis of the sense of self in the individual is the result of the coming together of five aggregates: form, sensation, concepts, volition, and consciousness. And these five aggregates are in a constant state of change subject to time and circumstance. As consciousness evolves or simply changes through time, the consciousness that experiences the writing of a book at one moment in time—for example at the age of 40—is radically different from the consciousness at work 17 years later. This does not seem to be an idea that would be alien to Barthes, or from the point of view of materialist neurology.
Again—without going into any great depth here—from a purely materialist point of view, if we accept that consciousness is a continuum created by ever-changing neurological or psychological activity, then the consciousness that creates or assembles any text, novel or multi-platform narrative, through an act of creative imagination, is as ephemeral as the consciousness that reads and experiences the unfolding of the text within their imagination.
2.3 (Digital) Life goes on
Partially because of the necessity of interacting with the digital world, but also as a creative interaction in itself, Far south has developed an ongoing creative life via Twitter (@FarSouthProject) and a blog www.farsouthproject.tumblr.com. Via Twitter, @FarSouthProject discovered the work of Friedrich Kittler. The novelist Tom McCarthy (2012) wrote an essay on Kittler published on the blog site of the London Review of Books. At first reading, it seemed that the character of Kittler and his followers was so similar to Gerardo Fischer, the main character of Far south, and Fischer’s Real and Present Theatre Company that the Kittler of the McCarthy article seemed to be a spoof. But I discovered that Kittler was indeed a social theorist. Moreover, Kittler’s book Gramophone, film, typewriter suggests that the capture of individual voice, music, prose and image somehow encapsulates an enduring part of the individual that will last as long as the recording lasts:
What remains of people is what media can store and communicate. What counts are not the messages or the content with which they equip so-called souls for the duration of the technological era, but rather (and in strict accordance with McLuhan) their circuits, the very schematism of perceptibility. (Kittler 1999: xl)
Showing how the invention of gramophone, film and typewriter is a precursor of the computer age, and opens the path toward artificial intelligence, he posits:
Once the technological differentiation of optics, acoustics and writing exploded Gutenberg’s writing monopoly around 1880 … the fabrication of so-called Man became possible. His essence escapes into apparatuses. Machines take over functions of the central nervous system, and no longer as in times past, merely those of muscles … For mechanized writing to be optimized, one can no longer dream of writing as the expression of individuals or the trace of bodies. The very forms, differences, and frequencies of its letters have to be reduced to formulas. So-called Man is split up into physiology and information technology. (Kittler 1999: 16)
As ‘the essence of man escapes into apparatuses’ Kittler playfully retells a story recounted by Nadar about Balzac:
The writer Balzac was already overcome by fear when faced with photography, as he confessed to Nadar, the great pioneer of photography. If (according to Balzac) the human body consists of many infinitely thin layers of ‘spectres’, and if the human spirit cannot be created from nothingness, then the daguerreotype must be a sinister trick: it fixes, that is steals, one layer after another, until nothing remains of the spectres, and the photographed body. (Kittler 1999: 10)
The idea that a photograph can capture the soul of an individual, while seeming deluded or paranoid, has such implications of ‘essence-capture’ insofar as the sound of the voice and the image of the person in film or photograph or music elicits the presence of that person in the consciousness of the listener or viewer in direct relation to the closeness of the relationship. Does this photographic simulacrum of the individual connect to some essential being in a spiritual sense? Kittler might not have agreed: as he says, ‘The realm of the dead is as extensive as the storage and transmission capabilities of a given culture’ (Kittler 1999: 12).
Some religious systems might claim a connection to an essential being: Shinto, voodoo, and spiritualism to name a few, or to the continuing stream of consciousness in some sects of Buddhism. While the recording endures, does the experience of connectivity with that individual endure in a non-religious sense? This will be quite obvious among families, friends or enemies, who will all have an emotional response to the recorded image or voice of the present, the exiled or the departed.
Could it be that the essence of David Enrique Spellman as heteronym inhabits the text of the published book, and the websites of cyberspace where the Far south project is stored? Hopefully, it also exists in the imagination of readers of the text and those who interface with the films and images on the websites. The Far south project continues to produce and recycle material and to interact with questions of truth and falsehood, philosophy and identity, social and literary criticism.
Without the cooperation of all those actors, musicians, photographers and web designers, there would be no Far south project. But it would be fallacious to claim that the written text of the novel has no author. Far south is an experiment in creation, chance and cooperation. This cooperation has not been to co-author the existing prose text, but to open other narratives in a controlled digital and textual environment, to provide a field in which other artists can participate in the creation of a new hyperlinked artefact. The Far south project was not designed as an Augmented Reality Game (ARG) and the interactions so far have remained by direct invitation only. We were hoping that the project would find a point where interactivity would increase and readers would become more active participants such as authors of new texts or films for the web pages. This has not happened. Perhaps Seán Burke has the reason why:
In projecting an interiorised digitalisation, the radical hypertextualist argument comes too early. If writing was only slowly and jaggedly interiorised as a constructive component of the human psyche, then one may not speak of the interiorisation of hypertextual technology from this matinal point in its history. (Burke 1992: 199)
What has been most edifying from a creative perspective has been the synergy created by the participants in the project. A good deal of this has been through pure chance, but it may be fair to say that openness to pure chance is likely to attract cooperative participants. Where participation is welcomed but not contrived, synergies appear to happen. Inevitably, this can only be ‘proved’ anecdotally. A rationalist might consider the many occasions of serendipity documented in this narrative coincidental, and the ‘recognition’ of serendipity by the participants as evidence of a paranoid mindset given to flights of creative euphoria. An over-analytical or statistical approach to this creative phenomenon carries the risk that the conditions necessary for the working of chance and serendipity might be compromised. That doesn’t mean there is no space for critical self-reflection. The present paper is an initial foray into the examination of synergy, coincidence and chance and points the way toward further research potentialities. The field is wide open.
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